Pioneers in a Field of Action
Kenneth Burke, the modernist critic of communication and culture, frequently argued that all human situations are composed of motives that are revealed through symbolic actions. Poetry, he continued, provided “strategies for living” by showing how such symbolic acts reveal human motives within ever changing environments. This dynamic understanding derives from essentially modernist pursuits of the poem as a “field of action,” identified as such in a 1948 essay by William Carlos Williams. After half a century of exploration in this rhetorical and formal process of poetics, certain writers in the Pound-Williams tradition continue to explore the dynamic possibilities of the poem. Many poets from Charles Olson and Philip Whalen to Susan Howe and Joanne Kyger expanded the boundaries of this “field of action” to invite readers to reflect on how belief and desire inform the public constitution of the world in which they live. Many of the New American poets showed how “strategies for living” could be provided to others through an earnest critique of their experience in particular environments. Susan Briante, more recently, continues with this approach to poetry as a symbolically active art.
The prose and verse narratives in Pioneers in the Study of Motion offer a dynamic reading of North American cultural geography, but they do so by examining belief and desire in symbolically active terms. The poems here are not aesthetic objects to appreciate (although they do provide considerable pleasure, if that’s what you’re looking for). Instead they set up problems, open complex transcultural situations to greater scrutiny, or inspect desire as an active element in the formation of social engagements. Formally diverse, the poems here are varied, though many strategically reveal situations through vivid imagery and a kind of paratactic accumulation. For instance:
Mist treads down the mountain roof by roof to rest beside me.
White-tongued bougainvillea embrace a fishtail palm.
Romance plays no part.
Cuts of raw beef fill flatbeds hurling up the hill.
I sit with my legs closed, a single woman edging a plaza in Mexico.
The sense data here builds to the statement: “[r]omance plays no part,” suggesting personal desire through its absence. Such statements color the “[c]uts of raw beef” and give definition to the “single woman edging a plaza in Mexico.” Attention to precise locations and their native substances provides strategies for apprehending the meaning of one’s cultural situation. In Briante’s case, an American woman of Italian descent enters the culturally exoticized spatial geography of Mexico. Informed by a personal background that includes New Jersey shores and ruined urban architectures of the North American East Coast, Briante provides insights of contemporary cultural geography through what Burke calls “perspectives by incongruity.” In other words, the disparate claims of her attention are formed through juxtaposed imagery, paratactic threads of argument or relation, and distinct cultural or geographic layers distributed by a subjectivity that identifies these correspondences as necessary in the composition of the poem. That’s a lot to say, okay: so let me turn more specifically to the work.
Rhetorically exact, poems such as “Unquiet” accumulate energy through the grammatical repetitions of the imperative voice: “Vertex of the Chrysler Building, pray for me; linemen, bartenders, muses, pray for me; crow covered highway, sing for me.” Such requests expand the subjectivity in the poem through elements of commerce, art, and architecture. The accumulating images intensify too: “crazed molecule! terse atom! play for me… dioramas of Cro-Magnon man, stand for me; willow bough and spikenard, shade me; until 5 winters roll from the Sierra Madre, train me; Nahuas, Zapotecs, Huicholes, do not sentence me.” By the end of the poem the “me” has been dispersed through diverse images, complicating any solid notion of self and yet also revealing an openness to the world of experience as a composing element in the event of the poem. Such active pursuit of the muses provides a kind of witness to contemporary social coordination of the self within environments that include physical biorhythms, personal and cultural histories, and real and imagined geographic coordinates. Significantly, the “outside” matters more than the personal feeling or insight of the poet. The world is witnessed and the poet translates phenomena into a language others can understand.
The problem of translation -- cultural translation -- haunts this vivid book. “The Cartographer’s Son,” a brief narrative of Mexican geographic locations, examines the motives behind the desire to engage with the other:
They come down from the mountains like clouds, like christs, and wander into the cities. In addition to the difference in sea levels, there is the stark gap of languages. A new vocabulary writhes in the hard center of the jaw:
mirrored building, carburetor, safety pin, glue.
Much will go unwritten, read only in the pucker and slack of lips.
Many objects get named twice:
a plastic bowl,
a plastic bowl with a slender crack.
Translations swell until the lyric is sung to the wrong woman, brown instead of black, velvet instead of cotton, some shallow veil of crepe, or not a dress at all, the water at certain times of the year like gauze, like the blurred lines of age or the lines that were forgotten the last time someone sang it, making her much less.
And where he had written Uxmal ruins
And where he had written Aquiles Serdán mine
And where he had written Taxco historic church
Thinking of this poem in terms of Williams’ “field of action,” Olson’s notion of a field poetics, or Burke’s sense of the motives that compose situations help us see what’s at stake for Briante. The narrative specificity and concreteness is juxtaposed with a sense of culture displacement. She is, despite her familiarity with the culture, very much an outsider to it. The process of such cultural translation leaves gaps in the narrative form, so that the “wrong woman” recedes into a memory of “blurred lines” which approximate the “lines of age” corresponding to the cultural ruins noted by indigenous names. Perception comes not strictly as a biological force of sense organs, but of the active poetic imagination, memory, and personal claims one possesses on unfamiliar phenomena. Briante shows how our identifications with the world form through image and sound, as well as through memory and experience. The “new” must be encountered according to its terms.
In a sense, the “pioneers” of Briante’s title are her readers who share in her cultural geography. The term “pioneers” (of French origin, no less) suggests a specific cultural heritage of the covered wagon type. As students of motion, however, Briante draws attention to the expansiveness and venality of pioneer incursions onto unknown territory. This perhaps is the main motive in a book in which short narratives in verse and prose in their ways attempt to satisfy a curiosity for the past in the experience of the poem -- a place, or event in words that can provide the nuanced relations necessary for such a study in its complexly woven dimensions of delight and savagery. Temporal and spatial dislocations in the poems provide entrance to the larger problems of migration, stealth visions, and commercial violence that while geographically distinct in location remain vitally close to American life in the present.
In “Certainly After,” Briante writes:
the strip mall at the edge
of cornrows glistens
a still wet blade
through the suburbs,
pine needles, sedimentary
steons in the fields
certainly after so much time
under my ribs, a branch
under my wheels,
this fence severs
nerves of birch trees
our wilderness bleeds
beyond scar, beyond wren,
The violence of commerce is illustrated vividly here. Suburban shopping spaces are juxtaposed with agricultural necessity. Wheels and fences intrude their forms on prior occasions of land use. Another prose movement of the same poem records the following:
A Pontiac Firebird rebounds from the retaining wall. Only 2,000 longshoremen remain at the Port of New York and New Jersey. On the corner, a bully slides from his 10-speed. Lights come on in a bedroom across the street. Radio Marvin Gaye sings. Burn marks along venetian blinds can be taken as a sign. The sideview mirror exposes wires, a gash above your left brow. Hotel chains nest just off Route 22. Birds gather in shipping crates. I come apart, baby. I mean for real, baby.
And so it continues -- the poem gathering a remarkable and concrete distribution of signs. The sentences argue for a perspective that forms through the incongruities of images. Authorial judgment is held in reserve, and only the symbolic acts here reveal the motives behind this situation of transportation through urban space. What happens though is that we begin to notice the complex weave of the mundane act of moving our flesh in the violently enforced routines of urban traffic. The “birch trees” of the earlier stanza become “[s]ycamores” that are “black veined, phantom limbed.” The trashy urban trees grow out in contrast to “[h]otel chains” and “yellow and white trailers.” The “wilderness bleeds” under the weight of this human abstraction of space as commercial value replaces traditional ways.
But what’s the news in this kind of knowledge? Who doesn’t know the fields have been plowed with car lots and billboards? And yet, the argument in Briante’s poems claim that this clusterfuck of imagery, violent as it is, composes a totality. The energized form of her poems shows how the fields persist within the paved landscapes. The poetic argument is that things don’t go away -- that prior forms do not erase easily. Such knowledge of what lies below haunts present structures. A complex tension becomes apparent in Briante’s claims for cultural and urban spaces, and the tension is left largely unresolved, as it should be. Resolutions to the contradictory demands of commerce on the past might lead some to guilty quips about our implication in a mess inherited from shitty urban planners. Other attempts at resolve might construct a barking voice to move us into action -- to somehow do the impossible by turning back time to a period in which America was a nation of yokels, plugged into the land. Briante’s more at ease with herself and with the contradictions of the present. Her work here simply asks for reflection on the belief and desire that motivate these circumstances of change. As “pioneers” we, her audience, must remain open to experience and to the perceptive force of attention. Where such attention is placed -- and how it orients us to things -- remains our greatest hope for understanding the forms we inhabit.